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When it comes to parenting and education, choosing the right time to impart critical lessons can make a world of difference.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Tetzaveh” (Exodus 27:20-30:10) and in it we read about the elaborate garments that the Kohanim (priests) had to wear. A regular Kohen (priest) had a four-garment uniform, while the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, had an eight-garment uniform.

In addition to the clothing were the breastplate and other ornaments that the High Priest would wear. There are many teachings about proper dress and attire derived from this week’s reading.

In short, Judaism teaches that “the clothes” really do “make the man.”

According to the Talmud, the elaborate uniform of the priests caught the attention of not just Jews, but Gentiles as well. The Talmud tells a story, often repeated when this Torah portion is read, about the Gentile who wanted to become a Kohen so he could wear the priestly garments. As the story goes, he overhead a rabbi teaching his students all about the Kohanic clothing and he was fascinated.

On the spot, the Gentile decided that he wanted to become Jewish just so he could become a High Priest and wear such clothing. The man made his way to the home of Shammai, the famous local orthodox rabbi of the time, and proudly told him that he wanted to convert just so he could become the High Priest and wear the holy garments.

Well, Shammai, who was known for being a little bit rough around the edges, quickly sent the stranger packing. Shammai felt that there was no reason to convert this man because his dream of wearing the Kohanic clothing could never be fulfilled. This is because you have to be born a Kohen, you can’t become one. If your father is a Kohen, then you are a Kohen. That’s the only way. As such, a convert, for example, will never be a Kohen, and thus will never be the High Priest. By extension, a Gentile would never be able to wear the Kohanic clothing, even if he converts to Judaism. (Neither could Moses, King David, or even the Messiah, for that matter, since they also were not born Kohanim.)

But our Gentile friend was persistent and made his away over to the other local orthodox rabbi, Hillel, who heard the man out and gladly admitted him into a conversion program. After the conversion was completed, Hillel told the man that he should now spend some time studying Torah in depth.

The man did so, and eventually came across the verse that says that a non-Kohen who wears the Kohanic garments is worthy of death!

The man went to Hillel to ask him if this verse was literal, and Hillel replied that it most certainly was. A non-Kohen simply cannot wear the Kohanic garments. The man, a sincere convert who believed in the Divinity of the Torah, accepted the teaching and sufficed with becoming a great rabbi.

But the question is asked: Why didn’t Hillel, like Shammai before him, tell the man that his dream of wearing the Kohanic clothes would not and could not ever be fulfilled? Why leave it as a surprise?

It is explained that some people need to hear things at specific times. It’s not that the news will change, but some people shouldn’t be given news until they’re ready or the circumstances are ripe.

Hillel saw how excited and enthusiastic the man was about the Kohanic clothing and didn’t want to remove that excitement from him. Doing so could have impacted his desire to convert, and by extension, he would never have become a great rabbi. Indeed, if Shammai had been the only rabbi in town, the man would have never converted, and that would have been the end of it.

This is a crucial lesson relevant to education and parenting. Some things must not be said if the timing is not right. We have to wait for the right moment. As the saying goes, “don’t be right, be smart” about what you say, what you do, and when you do it. Hillel’s approach shows us that sometimes the calm and well thought out approach is better than jumping the gun.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below: